by Heath Holland
I’m blaming it on Star Wars.
You know how people have complained about the fact that George Lucas refused to release the original theatrical cuts of his original trilogy after the 1995 VHS release? He did the same thing with The Phantom Menace, meaning the original cut that earned a billion dollars back in 1999 can only be found on videotape. Seeing as how I’ll be writing a super-duper nerdy piece about The Phantom Menace for this site in a couple of weeks, I wanted to see that original, theatrical cut of the film. This meant tracking down a VHS copy of the film, which was a problem, seeing as how I didn’t have a VCR with which to play it.
Now, after only one week, I’ve got two VCRs and a dozen VHS tapes, and I’m finding myself falling in love with the format all over again. I’m a VHS collector again for the first time since 1999, when I sold off all my tapes. I’m hitting thrift stores around town almost every day. Again, I’m blaming it on Star Wars. George Lucas raped my videotape collection.
Alas, these are the continuing adventures of a physical media collector. I’ve been banging on intermittently about how shiny disc sales are on the decline, but since I first wrote about this topic, some new statistics have emerged. The first shoe to drop comes with the prediction that digital sales are going to surpass disc sales as early as 2016, which is NEXT YEAR. Second, they (I don’t know who THEY are, but THEY know who they are) are predicting that DVDs and Blu-rays themselves will no longer be produced in as little as five years. It was big news when Fox announced recently that they were discontinuing production on their DVD sets of The Simpsons, and they’re just the first of many, it seems. Even though it’s been a talking point for several years now, the writing is finally on the wall: this party is almost over. Stuff everything you can into your pants and coat and run out the back.
Back in September of 2013, Patrick wrote about the documentary Rewind This! and noted that the film touched on a lot of issues that current movie fans and collectors are facing. That film takes a loving look at the days of VHS and spotlights a group of people who have refused to let it go, even as the market itself dried up and withered away. This is the same place we find ourselves now with DVD, and soon with Blu-ray, so it’s important to look at how those fans handled the decline of something they loved. VHS collecting was just starting to gain more mainstream attention back in 2013, and was seen as more of a novelty than a genuine movement. Now here we are 18 months later, and things have changed.
First, let’s look at Gorgon Video. Gorgon is the horror movie arm of MPI Home Video, and it was Gorgon who released the notorious Faces of Death series on VHS back in the day. In May of 2014, Gorgon Video reopened its doors to the video-tape-buying public and once again started producing new media for its fans. You can now go to Gorgon-Video.com and purchase not only DVDs and Blu-rays of films like Death Spa and Starry Eyes, but brand new VHS tapes of some of Gorgon’s most infamous releases. A lot of credit goes to Ti West, who wanted his movie The House of the Devil to be available on videotape. The initial run of tapes sold out, but now they’re back in production so everyone who wants a videotape can get one.
Something is happening here. I’m not suggesting that VHS is going to revive the sales of physical media, because that ship has sailed. But there does seem to be a renewed interest in analog, which is in stark contrast to the plummeting sales of newer media. In 2014, for instance, new vinyl album sales topped a million units for the first time in 20 years. That’s A MILLION new records in 2014, guys. While sales of music overall are on the decline, many of the people who are still buying it want something that they can hold and connect with, and that’s why they’re seeking out new records, which cost a premium. These numbers only account for NEW sales, and say nothing of the millions upon millions of sales happening at independent record stores and flea markets and second-hand shops on used copies of Destroyer from KISS and Led Zeppelin IV. People are coming back to old technology in a big way. Is this a glimpse into the future of movies on video, too?
It’s hard to say. For one thing, vinyl sounds better than digital, but VHS tapes most definitely do not look better than a Blu-ray or an HD digital copy. There’s bound to be a hipster element motivating this, too, but I’d like to think that the hipsters are in the minority on this VHS revival and that a lot of people are going analog for the right reasons, (they love movies). Plus, there’s purity in watching certain movies on VHS that you don’t get from a pristine digital presentation. I watched my Blu-ray of 1981’s Evil Dead a couple of days ago, after spending the earlier part of the week knee-deep in VHS tapes. If ever a movie demanded to be seen on a VHS tape, Evil Dead is it. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but clear picture and crystal sound do that movie a disservice. For movies that were made FOR video, watching them on video just feels so right.
Another huge selling point for VHS tapes is that they’re cheap. Currently, you can find VHS tapes all day long for a buck each, sometimes less. I’ve been at this for a whole week now (so I’m kind of an expert), and I’ve already scored sweet deals. I picked up some westerns from the 1950s which were never released on DVD, a Cannon movie, and some Disney films that I didn’t have because they’re in “the vault.” That Phantom Menace tape I was talking about? I got the widescreen collector’s edition, complete with 4 film cells and an art book, for a dollar. Oh, and that classic, unaltered Star Wars trilogy that people have been clamoring for since the 1997 special editions? I got all three of those on ebay for a total of one dollar (before shipping), too. Over 10 million copies of the trilogy were produced in 1995; all this stuff is out there in massive quantities, waiting to be rediscovered. They may not be anamorphic, or digitally remastered, or have all the matte lines wiped away, but they’re what people have been demanding, and there are enough copies of the trilogy out there that every fan who wants one could have one.
So that brings us up to now. These are really interesting times, and I’m curious to see what’s going to happen to us physical collectors when our media finally rides off into the sunset. We’ve got some choices headed our way, and we’re going to have to decide what’s more important: seeing a small number of movies in pristine quality via digital services, or going back to older technologies so we can watch whatever we want to watch on our own terms. There are just too many movies falling through the cracks these days, and thousands of films and shows from Hollywood’s golden age have gone MIA over the last 15 years as they failed to make the transition from tape to disc, much less streaming. Most of them aren’t on Netflix or iTunes, and I doubt we’ll get an Ultraviolet version of Saturday the 14th any time soon. But this stuff is out there, just waiting to be rediscovered. I wonder how many people will look.